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Literary everyman

CK Stead is a living legend in New Zealand literature. Aidan Rasmussen spoke to Stead about his long literary life, but not before he taught him how to use the Internet.

CK Stead

Rather than arrive too early on CK (Christian Karlson) Stead's doorstep, I bide my time next to the blue Holden Astra parked in his carport and watch a ferocious downpour of rain cascade off the roof of his white split level Lockwood home.

Stead has been labeled a terrible ogre and has a reputation for gruffness; his literary spats are legendary, his latest one with biographer Michael King having only just recently come to an end. He's a giant in the New Zealand literary scene; was mentored by two other New Zealand lit legends - Frank Sargeson and Allen Curnow - and was there in the 50s when a New Zealand literary 'scene' was first stirring to life. His daughter Charlotte Grimshaw is one of a new wave of young female writers currently reshaping the landscape of writing in this country and his son Oliver is the head of collection management at the Auckland War Memorial Museum, and oversaw 150 Treasures (a book which features some of the museums most interesting artefacts).

So it was with all these things in mind that I stepped gingerly down the steps of his carport onto the concrete path leading to the front door of his Parnell property. I knocked on the door, stared at an open umbrella drying on the doorstep and waited.

The first thing I can say about CK Stead is that all the descriptions I've ever read of his physical appearance are true. His lined face is formidable looking and seems set in a permanent scowl (which lights up when he smiles). He is tall, lean, has a slight stoop when he walks and is dressed in navy blue suit pants and a turquoiseish shirt. He leads me into his tidy lounge and I spy a copy of Ian McEwan's Booker Prize shortlisted novel Atonement on his coffee table next to a book about France. I ask him if he has read it. "No, I haven't yet. Have you?" "No," I say. Outside the window a gigantic pool is being constructed next to the concrete skeleton of a huge mansion. Stead and his wife opposed the construction of the pool, but the developers curried favour with his neighbours who succumbed to their overtures. He's skeptical of whether they'll find tenants: "It's not near a beach and is hemmed in by houses on all sides."

He takes me up to his wife's study where he had been checking his emails on her black Pentium computer when I arrived, turns it off and settles his 69-year-old frame into a chair and waits for me to begin. Five minutes later the computer is back on and I find myself tutoring one of this country's most respected literary icons in how to use the Internet. Forgive me; I need to recap. It seems the former Mt Albert Grammar pupil is not au fait with nzoom. So I take him on a quick tour of the site, of which he's not entirely impressed with. It's more of a young person's thing, he says as we leave the computer and sit back down.

How do you interview someone of Stead's standing and reputation? Well, you let him talk and talk and talk. And while you do, you realise he's not the terrible ogre he's been made out to be - at least not today. Stead's engaging, interested, friendly, and even, goddamit, partial to the odd laugh - or two.

We talk about his latest novel, The Secret History of Modernism, which is about a New Zealand novelist who is experiencing writer's block and who draws on his UK overseas experience in the 1950s to break his dry spell. About his tendency to splice in bits and pieces from his own life into his work and make his readers believe his writing is autobiographical when in fact, it's not.

"If people take something as autobiography it's partly a tribute, because clearly it's so believable, it seems so much like reality they think it couldn't be invented. But of course which bits are invented and which are real or taken from actual experiences are never identified," he says digging into his left thumbnail with his right middle finger and flicking the contents away from him. He does this throughout the interview.

I ask Stead to take me through his journey through the world of words. "Your question is an invitation to a long literary autobiography," he says chuckling away to himself. "I don't know where to begin."

The Secret History of Modernism

So lets begin for him. The novelist, poet, literary critic, essayist and emeritus professor of English from the University of Auckland began writing poetry at school, "When I write poetry I always feel as though I've come back to first base," but didn't have any notion of wanting to write until he was 13 or 14. Thought of becoming a farmer because he liked being on farms. As a kid he dreamed of being a pianist. Had an ear for it, but the "hand eye thing I just didn't have." Didn't really entertain the thought of becoming a fulltime writer, so threw himself into academic studies (MA Auckland 1955; PhD Bristol 1961) and became a lecturer in English at the University of Auckland in 1959. "I supposed you couldn't be a fulltime writer in New Zealand. I thought I would have to have another job and that it would have to be a teacher." He became a full professor after only eight years and published a number works, mostly poetry and literary criticism and the Vietnam-inspired novel Smiths Dream (1971), which became a film in 1977 titled Sleeping Dogs featuring Sam Neil. Stead has won the New Zealand book award twice for his novels All Visitors Ashore and The Singing Whakapapa (1994). He didn't concentrate on fiction until 1986 when he took an early retirement after the success of his novel All Visitors Ashore (1984).

And so we sit there, the soundtrack to our conversation the clatter of rain on roof, which eventually, as is the case in Auckland, gives way to the shimmer of a sunny afternoon. I listen as he offers his opinions on a variety of topics. Is positive about the Harry Potter phenomenon, "to make reading fashionable among children, can only be good," but understandably skeptical about the marketing behemoth behind the movie. Believes literary prizes should be eyed with some degree of suspicion because, "mostly they go to the wrong book and they're a nightmare for writers because you can't turn your back on them. You have to take all literature prizes, right up the Nobel Prize, with a huge grain of salt." Has a passion for politics and looks at me with absolute astonishment - as if I should know he wouldn't support any other party but Labour - when I ask him who gets his party vote. And absolutely adores Helen Clark.

"I think she's great, I think she's the most competent PM we've had in my lifetime. I quite liked David Lange, because he had style and he was funny. But Helen is much more lucid than Lange; her sentences have a beginning, middle and end and they've always got a point."

Sensing the interview's coming to an end, I ask Stead what writing has given him. He ums and ahs for a little while, whispers words like satisfaction, friends and happiness, but at the same time admits being flummoxed by such a question.

"It's so inextricably a part of my self now, it's a sort of a meaningless question. I am a writer; I'm not a butcher or a builder. I'm a writer."

And who's to argue? Certainly not me, I know all too well where that might lead.

Aidan Rasmussen